The first time I did a pastors training conference in Kenya, Tess (my wife) came with me. And afterwards we did a safari at a tented lodge. And they were my kind of tents. Ours had a four-poster bed, rainforest shower, coffee maker and a personal attendant called Joshua, who greeted us on arrival with chocolate-dipped mango.
You can tell a lot about people from the kind of tent they choose. And funnily enough, the same is true of God. Because in the next bit of this Exodus series, we'll see how the Lord told his people to build him a tent (also called the tabernacle). And it was the most important and educational tent ever made, because God designed it to teach his people then, and us today, about relating to him.
So would you open up your Bibles to Exodus 25. And we're going to do chapters 25 to 31 because it's the next natural chunk, all about the Lord's tent. So we could spend weeks on every detail, but as often with the Bible, it's better to see the wood for the trees.
So, the story so far is that God has rescued the Israelites, from Egypt. And he's proposed marriage to them at Mount Sinai. So he has said, 'I will be your God – if you're prepared to be my people.' And in chapter 24, we saw the marriage ceremony, where the people said, 'We will.' So what's meant to happen after a wedding? The answer is: you move in and live together. Which is the story of the rest of Exodus, as God tells them to make this tent so he can move in and live with them.
And the first thing we see is:
1. The Reason for the Tabernacle
Look down to chapter 25, verse 1:
"The Lord said to Moses, 'Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me a contribution. From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me. And this is the contribution that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, goats' hair, tanned rams' skins, goatskins, acacia wood, 6 oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones, and stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece."
So, all the best materials – because of who this tent was going to be for. And then look at verse 8 – a key verse:
"And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst."
So let's do a bit of Bible vocab. 'Sanctuary' means 'a place where holiness is'. And 'holiness' means 'otherness' – it's how God is totally other than us because he's morally perfect and uncompromising.
So this is a tent where God in all his holiness is going to live. And we've met God in all his holiness already in Exodus – when he came down on Mount Sinai in fire and thunder and all the rest of it – in a way that terrified them. My Dad worked on nuclear reactors. And how the Israelites felt about the Lord was how Dad would have felt about a nuclear reactor: 'Danger of radiation. Keep safe distance.' Only with the Lord it was, 'Danger of judgement. Keep safe distance.' And yet here the Lord says he wants to camp with them. That's like a nuclear reactor saying it wants to come and live in your back garden.
Well, just turn over to chapter 29 and verse 45, where the Lord again gives the reason for the tabernacle. He says that when it's finished:
"I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt [why?] that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God."
So God's aim all along was to live with them and meet their needs and do them good – like the best of husbands want to.
My Dad never showed interest in Christian things. And one time we talked about it, he said, 'Science explains everything I want explaining. But [he also said], if God is there, what does he actually want from us?' And he sounded irritated – as if he assumed that God (if he's there) would just want to slap a bunch of unreasonable, life-spoiling demands on us. It often helps to answer a question with a question. So I said, 'Well, what do you want from me and Niall [my brother]? What did you hope for from us?' And Dad said, 'I guess that we'd have a good relationship.' And I said, 'That's what God wants from us, too.'
And that's the reason for the tabernacle. It shows that God wants relationship with us – not that he needs anything from us; he wants to meet our needs And do us good. And that may be a surprising new thought to you – that the God who right now may seem so distant from you actually wants you to know him personally. But he does.
Then the second thing we see in these chapters is:
2. The Teaching of the Tabernacle
So what did God mean this tent to teach us?
Well, turn back to chapter 25, verse 9, where the Lord says:
"Exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it."
And that's like a running gag through these chapters: 'Make it exactly as I say.' Why did the Lord say that? Well, think of the second commandment:
"You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth."
In other words, 'You shall not make any representation of me.' And that's because any representation of God we make will always be a misrepresentation – we'll always think of God wrongly out of our own heads.
Whereas the Lord says in chapters 25 to 31, 'You shall make this tent exactly as I say – because it will teach you exactly how to relate to me.'
And the first thing they were to make was the ark – not Noah's, but the box that was at the centre of the tabernacle. Look at chapter 25, verse 10:
"They shall make an ark of acacia wood. Two cubits and a half shall be its length [a cubit was half a metre], a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and you shall make on it a moulding of gold round it. [Skip to verse 16:] And you shall put into the ark the testimony that I shall give you."
And 'the testimony' was the Ten Commandments – maybe plus what follows (in Exodus 20-23) – written down. And putting that in the ark symbolised that this wasn't a marriage of equals. This was a marriage between the Creator and his creatures, where God was going to rule them through his word.
So the ark teaches that we relate to God through his word – in fact, through what he's already spoken and had written down. Now at this point, they only had a fraction of what he was going to speak. Whereas we've now got the lot, in the completed Bible. But, then or now, God expects believers to relate to him through what he's already said. So instead of expecting new words from him today – writing in the sky or whatever – we're to realise that the Bible is his always up-to-date, relevant, Word which doesn't need improving on or adding to or replacing.
But the Lord knew that his people would constantly fail to live up to his word. So the other symbolic thing about the ark was the atonement cover. Look on to chapter 25, verse 17:
"You shall make a mercy seat [the ESV footnote says 'or mercy cover'; other translations say 'atonement cover'] of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. And you shall make two cherubim of gold [i.e, angel figures]; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; towards the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you…"
Now I'm trying to spare you death by detail. But there's a footnote to verse 17 about the 'mercy seat'. It says you could translate the original word 'mercy cover'. Other Bibles say 'atonement cover'. Which I wish they'd done here, because the Bible uses that word 'atonement' a lot to explain the sacrifices that went on at the tabernacle. Because 'atonement' had the idea of covering something. For example, 'atoning for' a debt meant covering a debt you owed by paying enough money. In which case, you didn't just cover the debt as if it was still there but hidden – you actually cancelled the debt so it was gone. And that's what the sacrifices at the tabernacle symbolised.
We're jumping ahead, but later in the Bible we're told about the Day of Atonement, when once a year the head priest at the tabernacle would sacrifice a goat, take some of its blood, and put the blood on the atonement cover. And the goat's death symbolised that a substitute had taken the judgement the people deserved for their sin. And the goat's blood was the evidence – 'Exhibit A' – of that death being presented to God, as if to say, 'Please accept a substitute's death as payment to cover our sins.'
And the whole set-up of priests and sacrifices was given by God, because he knew they'd constantly fail to live up to his Word, and constantly need forgiveness.
So that's what the ark was teaching. The testimony inside said, 'This is what God calls you to live up to.' And the atonement cover said, 'But he knows you'll constantly fail, and constantly need covering in forgiveness.'
The story is told of a couple who got married in later life. And a friend of the wife-to-be said to her, 'Well, you won't exactly have young love's blindness on your side, so how will you handle the things you don't like about him?' And she said, 'Oh, I've written a list of them, and forgiven them in advance.' And her friend said, 'But what about the things you haven't thought of?' And she said, 'Ah, the last thing on my list was… 'And everything else I don't yet know.''
And God the husband was equally realistic about his Old Testament people's need of forgiveness – and is equally realistic about ours.
Well next comes a highly symbolic curtain. Look on to chapter 26, verse 31:
"And you shall make a veil [i.e, curtain] of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. It shall be made with cherubim skilfully worked into it. And you shall hang it on four pillars of acacia overlaid with gold, with hooks of gold, on four bases of silver. And you shall hang the veil from the clasps, and bring the ark of the testimony in there within the veil. And the veil shall separate for you the Holy Place from the Most Holy. You shall put the mercy seat on the ark of the testimony in the Most Holy Place."
Now we first meet cherubim in Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve have rebelled against God and it says:
"He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life."
So they're basically angels who guard access into God's presence – spiritual bouncers if you like.
So on the one hand, the tabernacle symbolised God's invitation to relate to him. But on the other, it symbolised that we can only relate to him if our sin is dealt with. Because that curtain which separated the ark off into the most holy place symbolised that God is holy and we are not, so we can't just come into his presence as we are.
Growing up, I remember coming back filthy from footie matches or messing about in the woods by our house, and Mum – the domestic cherubim – would catch us – sometimes physically – on the threshold and say, 'You're not coming in here like that!' And that's basically what that inner curtain in the tabernacle was saying.
So there (above) is the picture so far:
- The ark top centre, symbolising the presence of God, behind the inner curtain, in the 'most holy place'.
- The rest of the tabernacle tent was the 'holy place', behind an outer curtain.
- And around the tabernacle was a courtyard, in which sacrifices were made on the altar.
So now turn on to chapter 28, verse 1, and let's meet the priests. The Lord told Moses:
"Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests."
And they were to be symbolically dressed. For example, look on to verse 11:
"As a jeweller engraves signets, so shall you engrave the two stones with the names of the sons of Israel [i.e, of the twelve tribes]. You shall enclose them in settings of gold filigree. And you shall set the two stones on the shoulder pieces of the ephod, as stones of remembrance for the sons of Israel. And Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD on his two shoulders for remembrance."
So every time a priest went into the tabernacle, he was symbolically taking all God's people with him, representing them to God. And his presence there was like a prayer saying, 'Lord, please remember to have mercy on them.'
So in chapter 28 we meet the priests. Then in chapter 29 we meet the sacrifices. For example, look at chapter 29, verse 10 – which describes the sacrifice Aaron and sons were to offer for themselves as they began their job:
"Then you shall bring the bull before the tent of meeting. Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on the head of the bull."
And that symbolised that the liability for their sin was being transferred from them onto this substitute. Verse 11:
"Then you shall kill the bull before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and shall take part of the blood of the bull and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger, and the rest of the blood you shall pour out at the base of the altar."
And remember: the blood was evidence – Exhibit A – presented to God that a substitute had symbolically died for them. And, as the next picture shows, that all happened in front of the tabernacle:
And at the very end of verse 14 it says:
"It is a sin offering."
Which means a sacrifice which was the way that forgiveness could be asked for and received in Old Testament times.
So, wood for the trees, that's what the tabernacle taught. Last heading:
3. The Promise of the Tabernacle
You may now be thinking, 'This is death by detail… and what's it got to do with relating to Jesus today?' Well, I once heard a preacher ask, 'Is the Bible about 1,000 different things? Or the same thing from 1,000 different angles?' And the answer is: the same thing – namely, Jesus and how we can relate to God through him. And the tabernacle is one of the most important 'angles' on Jesus, because it promised in the form of this giant visual aid everything Jesus would one day do.
And that's why we had that New Testament reading from Hebrews – because Hebrews explains how Jesus fulfilled what the tabernacle promised. So would you turn on in your Bible to Hebrews 9. And I hope this will now make more sense, and that lightbulbs will be going on:
"Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence [and I spared you those details]; It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense [which I also spared you] and the ark…
[Skip to the end of verse 5]
Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
[What a relief! Even the Bible writer wants to avoid death by detail and says, 'Just see the wood for the trees'.]
These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age)."
So that's saying: as long as the tabernacle – which later became the temple – was standing, it said, 'The way for sinners to come fully and directly and safely into God's presence is not yet opened.' Why not? Well, read on in verse 9:
"According to this arrangement [i.e, the tabernacle/temple set-up] gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshipper."
In other words, those Old Testament sacrifices couldn't really deal with sin. They were just symbolic. So yes, the tabernacle was a way through which forgiveness could be asked for and received. But none of those sacrifices could actually deal with the sin – as in, pay for the forgiveness that was being asked and received. Instead, they pointed forward to the one sacrifice that could. So read on, Hebrews 9.11:
"But when Christ [Jesus] appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places [that is, into heaven], not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. [i.e, a payment for all sins for all people, for all time, forever.]"
So what the tabernacle was pointing to was this:
It was pointing to: Jesus offering himself on the cross, as the once for all sacrifice that could pay for the forgiveness of believers before and after the cross. (Which is why, at the moment Jesus died, that inner curtain was torn from top to bottom as if to say, 'The way is now fully open for you to come as close to God as it's possible to come.')
And it was pointing to: Jesus then rising from the dead, and returning to his Father in heaven, to be our priest. And remember: the priest's presence in the tabernacle was like a prayer saying, 'Lord, please remember to have mercy on them.' And Jesus' presence in heaven constantly prays that for us who trust in him.
Now how does the Bible apply that all to us?
Well, look on, to Hebrews 10, verse 17. To those trusting in Jesus,
"… [God] adds, 'I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.' [i.e, 'I will treat them like they'd never sinned.'] Where there is forgiveness of [sins], there is no longer any offering for sin."
And can you hear the hint of application there? It doesn't explicitly tell us to do anything. But implicitly, it's saying, 'So when you come to God in prayer, don't try to bring your own sacrifices. Don't try to offer God any reasons why he should forgive and accept you – apart from the once for all reason that Jesus died for you.'
And there are two things we often try to offer God as part of the reason why he should forgive us.
One is sorrow for sin. And we use this one especially for the big things on our consciences. An example for me was the engagement I broke off in my twenties – which left me full of guilt. For others it may be hurting someone differently, or an abortion, or a big deceit, or whatever. And we think that offering our sorrow for sin – being sorry enough for long enough – will somehow be part of the reason why God will forgive us. But verse 18 says, 'No, the only reason is: that Jesus died for you on the cross. Plead that, and nothing else.'
The other thing we try to offer is our promise to do better next time. And we use this one especially for our habitual sins. So, for example, we come to the Lord saying, 'You know I've got angry with the children again, or fallen for pornography again (or whatever). But I'm going to get up and try harder, so please would you forgive me?' And verse 18 says, 'No, the only reason is: that Jesus died for you on the cross. Plead that, and nothing else.'
So let me read to you from verse 19 to finish:
"Therefore, brothers [and sisters] since we have confidence to enter the holy places…"
And that sounds mad, doesn't it? How can we can come as close as it's possible to be to this nuclear-reactor-like holy God – with 'confidence'?! Well, read on:
"… by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh [i.e, his bodily death on the cross], and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith…"
Because faith looks away from anything I can offer God as a reason why he should forgive and accept me. And faith simply looks to Jesus and his sacrifice – once for all sins, for all people, for all time. And then it comes to God in prayer and says, 'Will you forgive me and accept me and listen to me and stay committed to me, and in the end welcome me into heaven because of what your Son did for me?'
And the answer, whoever you are, whatever you've done, is always, 'Yes.'